Paul Muni

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Paul Muni
Paul Muni - Zola - 1936.jpg
Paul Muni in 1936
Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund

(1895-09-22)September 22, 1895
DiedAugust 25, 1967(1967-08-25) (aged 71)
Resting place Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Other namesMuni Weisenfreund
Years active1908–1962
Bella Finkel
(m. 1921)

Paul Muni (born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund; September 22, 1895 [1] – August 25, 1967) was an American stage and film actor from Chicago. He started his acting career in the Yiddish theater and during the 1930s, he was considered one of the most prestigious actors at the Warner Bros. studio and was given the rare privilege of choosing his own parts.


Muni often played powerful characters, such as the lead role in Scarface (1932), and was known for his intense preparation for his parts, often immersing himself in the study of the real characters' traits and mannerisms. He was also highly skilled in makeup techniques, a talent that he had learned from his parents, who were also actors, and from his early years on stage with the Yiddish theater in Chicago. At the age of 12, he played the stage role of an 80-year-old man, and in his film Seven Faces, he played seven characters.

Muni appeared in 22 films and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor five times, winning the award for his role in the 1936 film The Story of Louis Pasteur . He also starred in numerous Broadway plays and won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his role in the 1955 production of Inherit the Wind .

Early life and career

Muni was born in 1895 as Frederich Meier Weisenfreund to a Jewish family in Lemberg, Galicia, then Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Lviv, Ukraine). His Hebrew name was Meshilem. His parents were Salli (born Khaya Tsilke Fishler) and Phillip Weisenfreund. [2] He learned Yiddish as his first language. When he was seven, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1902; they settled in Chicago.

Muni's makeup skills were used for The Story of Louis Pasteur. Muni Pasteur.jpg
Muni's makeup skills were used for The Story of Louis Pasteur .

As a boy, he was known as "Moony". [3] He started his acting career in the Yiddish theatre in Chicago with his parents, who were both actors. As a teenager, he developed skill in creating makeup, which enabled him to play much older characters. [4] Film historian Robert Osborne notes that Muni's makeup skills were so creative that for most of his roles, "he transformed his appearance so completely, he was dubbed 'the new Lon Chaney.'" In his first stage role at the age of 12, Muni played the role of an 80-year-old man. [5] He was quickly recognized by Maurice Schwartz, who signed him to perform in his Yiddish Art Theater. [6]

A 1925 New York Times article mentioned Sam Kasten's and Muni's performances at the People's Theater among the highlights of the year's Yiddish theater season, describing them as second only to Ludwig Satz.

Muni began acting on Broadway in 1926. His first role was that of an elderly Jewish man in the play We Americans, written by playwrights Max Siegel and Milton Herbert Gropper. It was the first time that he had acted in English.

In 1921, he married Bella Finkel (February 8, 1898 – October 1, 1971), an actress in the Yiddish theatre and daughter of Moishe Finkel. They remained married until Muni's death in 1967.


In 1929, Muni was signed by Fox. His name was simplified and anglicized to Paul Muni (derived from his nickname of youth "Moony"). His acting talents were quickly recognized, and he received an Oscar nomination for his first film, The Valiant (1929), although the film fared poorly at the box office. [4] His second film, Seven Faces (also 1929), was also a financial failure. Unhappy with the roles offered to him, he returned to Broadway, where he starred in a major hit play, Counsellor at Law. [5]

Muni soon returned to Hollywood to star in provocative pre-Code films such as Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (both 1932). For his role in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Muni was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. His acclaim as a result of his performance impressed Warner Bros., which signed him to a long-term contract, publicizing him as "the screen's greatest actor." [5]

I had been wanting to see Scarface since 1974 ... The film just stopped me in my tracks. All I wanted to do was imitate Paul Muni. His acting went beyond the boundaries of naturalism into another kind of expression. It was almost abstract what he did. It was almost uplifting.

Al Pacino [7]

Scarface, part of a cycle of gangster films at the time, [8] was written by Ben Hecht [9] :6 and directed by Howard Hawks. Critic Richard Corliss noted in 1974 that while it was a serious gangster film, it also "manages both to congratulate journalism for its importance and to chastise it for its chicanery, by underlining the newspapers' complicity in promoting the underworld image." [9] :10

In 1935, Muni persuaded Warner Bros. to take a financial risk by producing the successful historical biography The Story of Louis Pasteur . This became Muni's first of many biographical roles. Until that film, most Warner Bros. stories had originated from current events and major news stories, with the notable exceptions of George Arliss's earlier biographical films Disraeli , Alexander Hamilton and Voltaire . [5] Muni won an Oscar for his performance.

Muni played other historical figures, including Émile Zola in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), for which he was again nominated for an Oscar. [10] The film won Best Picture and was interpreted as indirectly attacking the repression of Nazi Germany. [10] He also played the lead role in Juarez (1939).

In 1937, Muni played a Chinese peasant with a new bride in a film adaptation of Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth . The film was a recreation of a revolutionary period in China and included special effects for a locust attack and the overthrow of the government. Because Muni was not of Asian descent, when producer Irving Thalberg offered him the role, he said, "I'm about as Chinese as [President] Herbert Hoover." [5]

Dissatisfied with life in Hollywood, Muni chose not to renew his contract. He returned to the screen only occasionally in later years for such roles as Frédéric Chopin's teacher in A Song to Remember (1945). In 1946, he played a rare comic role in Angel on My Shoulder .

Later career

New York City opening of A Flag is Born (1946) AlvinPlayhouse.jpg
New York City opening of A Flag is Born (1946)

Muni then focused most of his energies on stage work, and occasionally on television roles. In 1946, he appeared on Broadway in A Flag is Born , written by Ben Hecht, to help promote the creation of a Jewish state in Israel. [11] This play was directed by Luther Adler and co-starred Marlon Brando. Years later, in response to a question put to him by Alan King, Brando stated that Muni was the greatest actor he ever saw. At London's Phoenix Theatre on July 28, 1949, Muni began a run as Willy Loman in the first British production of Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. He took over from Lee J. Cobb, who had played the principal role in the original Broadway production. Both productions were directed by Elia Kazan.

In 1952, Muni traveled to Italy to star in Imbarco a mezzanotte directed by Joseph Losey, partly as an act of solidarity and support for blacklisted friends living abroad in exile.

A few years later, during 1955 and 1956, Muni had his biggest stage success in the United States as the crusading lawyer, Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow), in Inherit the Wind , winning a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. In late August 1955, Muni was forced to withdraw from the play due to a serious eye ailment causing deterioration in his eyesight. He was later replaced by actor Melvyn Douglas. [12]

In early September 1955, Muni, then 59 years old, was diagnosed with a tumor of the left eye. The eye was removed in an operation at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. His right eye was reported to be normal. [13] In early December 1955, Muni returned to his starring role as Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind. [14]

His last movie role was as an aging doctor in The Last Angry Man (1959), and he was again nominated for an Oscar. After that, Muni mostly retired from acting to deal with failing eyesight and other health problems. [5] He made his final screen appearance on television, in a guest role on the dramatic series Saints and Sinners in 1962.

Acting techniques, reputation and legacy

Paul Muni in the trailer for Scarface Muni Scarface 2.JPG
Paul Muni in the trailer for Scarface

Muni was noted for his intense preparation for his roles, especially the biographies. While preparing for The Story of Louis Pasteur, Muni said, "I read most everything that was in the library, and everything I could lay my hands on that had to do with Pasteur, with Lister, or with his contemporaries." [15] He did the same in preparing for his role as Henry Drummond, based on Clarence Darrow, in the play Inherit the Wind. He read what he could find, talked to people who knew Darrow personally, and studied physical mannerisms from photographs of him. "To Paul Muni, acting was not just a career, but an obsession", writes The New York Times. They note that despite his enormous success both on Broadway and in films, "he threw himself into each role with a sense of dedication." Playwright Arthur Miller commented that Muni "was pursued by a fear of failure." [15]

As Muni was born into an acting family, with both of his parents professional actors, "he learned his craft carefully and thoroughly." On stage, "a Muni whisper could reach the last balcony of any theater", writes the Times. It wrote that his style "had drawn into it the warmth of the Yiddish stage", in which he made his debut at the age of 12. In addition, his technique in using makeup "was a work of art." Combined with acting which followed no "method", he perfected his control of voice and gestures into an acting style that was "unique." [15]

Film historian David Shipman described Muni as "an actor of great integrity", [16] noting he meticulously prepared for his roles. Muni was widely recognized as eccentric if talented: he objected to anyone wearing red in his presence, and he could often be found between sessions playing his violin. Over the years, he became increasingly dependent on his wife, Bella, a dependence which increased as his failing eyesight turned to blindness in his final years. [16] Muni was "inflexible on matters of taste and principle", once turning down an $800,000 movie contract because he was not happy with the studio's choice of film roles. [15]

Although Muni was considered one of the best film actors of the 1930s, some film critics such as David Thomson [17] and Andrew Sarris,[ citation needed ] accuse him of overacting. Thomson described Muni as "a crucial negative illustration in any argument as to what constitutes screen acting." [17]

German director William Dieterle, who directed him in his three biopics, also frequently accused him of overacting, despite his respect for the actor. [18]

Personal life

Muni with his wife Bella at the premier of Life of Emile Zola Paul and Bella Muni, 1937.jpg
Muni with his wife Bella at the premier of Life of Emile Zola

In his private life, Muni was considered to be very shy and was uncomfortable with being recognized in public. He enjoyed reading and taking walks with his wife in secluded sections of Central Park.

Muni campaigned for the reelection of President Herbert Hoover in 1932. [19]

After retiring from acting, he lived in California. In his den, which he called his "Shangri-La", he spent time reading books and listening to the radio. [15]


Muni died of a heart disorder in Montecito, California in 1967 at the age of 71. He is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood.

Legacy and honors

Muni had four official Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, winning for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and receiving official nominations for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and The Last Angry Man (1959). His nomination for the film The Valiant (1929) is unofficial because at the 2nd Academy Awards, acting nominees were not announced, only the winners' names. [20] Muni's performance in Black Fury was not nominated for an Oscar.

Referring to his childhood during the Great Depression, Hawkeye Pierce in the "Hawkeye" episode of the television series M*A*S*H* says: "You knew where you stood in those days. Franklin Roosevelt was always president, Joe Louis was always the champ, and Paul Muni played everybody." [22]

Muni and George Raft appeared as characters in the fifth season of Boardwalk Empire , meeting with Al Capone to discuss the film Scarface. [23]

Comedian and actor Paul Mooney took his stage name, which was also his childhood nickname, from Muni. [24]


1929 The Valiant James DykeNominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1929 Seven Faces Papa Chibou / Diablero / Willie Smith /
Franz Schubert / Don Juan / Joe Gans / Napoleon
Lost film
1932 Scarface Antonio "Tony" Camonte
1932 I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang James AllenNominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1933 The World Changes Orin Nordholm Jr.
1934 Hi, Nellie! Brad Bradshaw
1935 Bordertown Johnny Ramirez
1935 Black Fury [lower-alpha 1] Joe Radek
1935 Dr. Socrates Dr. Lee Cardwell, nicknamed "Dr. Socrates"
1936 The Story of Louis Pasteur Louis Pasteur Academy Award for Best Actor
Volpi Cup for Best Actor
1937 The Good Earth Wang LungReleased in sepia tone
1937 The Woman I Love Lt. Claude Maury
1937 The Life of Emile Zola Émile Zola New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1939 Juarez Benito Juárez
1939 We Are Not Alone Dr. David Newcome
1941 Hudson's Bay Pierre-Esprit Radisson
1942 Commandos Strike at Dawn Erik Toresen
1943 Stage Door Canteen Himself
1945 A Song to Remember Prof. Joseph Elsner Filmed in Technicolor
1945 Counter-Attack Alexei Kulkov
1946 Angel on My Shoulder Eddie Kagle / Judge Fredrick Parker
1952 Imbarco a mezzanotte The Stranger with a Guncalled Stranger on the Prowl in the U.S.
1959 The Last Angry Man Dr. Samuel "Sam" Abelman Mar del Plata Film Festival Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor

Radio appearances

1936 Lux Radio Theatre The Story of Louis Pasteur [26]

Lux Radio Theater. "The Life of Emile Zola". May 8, 1939 Calvalcade of America. "Edwin Booth". March 31, 1941 The Free Company. "The Miracle Of The Danube". April 27, 1941 Calvalcade of America. "Bolivar, The Liberator". October 6, 1941 Calvalcade of America. "Eagle's Nest". December 28, 1942 Radio Hall of Fame. "No Uncommon Clay". April 30, 1944 Suspense Theater. "The Search For Henri Leferve". July 6, 1944 Arch Ololer's Plays. "This Living Book". October 11, 1945 Academy Award Theater. April 13, 1946 Eternal Light. "And It Came To Pass". December 7, 1947 Studio One. "Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse". January 20, 1948 Calvalcade of America. "Alerting of Dr. Pomerantz". February 16, 1948 Calvalcade of America. "Garden Key". November 8, 1948 Biography in Sound. "Clarence Darrow". September 13, 1956


  1. Muni was not nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Black Fury . For two years only, the Academy allowed a write-in vote. This meant that technically, any performance was eligible for an award. This decision was made in 1935 in response to the controversy surrounding Bette Davis failing to get a nomination for her performance in Of Human Bondage . Muni came in 2nd in the vote for Best Actor, but the Academy does not recognize Muni or Davis as nominees in those years. [25] The Academy's nomination and winner database does note this under the 1935 Best Actor category and under the Paul Muni search, as well as for Davis in 1934 and Best Actress.

See also

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  2. "On The Screen" . Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle . October 27, 1967.
  3. Adler, Jacob; Lulla Rosenfeld (2001). A Life on the Stage: A Memoir. Hal Leonard Corp. p. 377. ISBN   978-1557834584. ... Muni Weisenfreund, now Paul Muni
  4. 1 2 Pendergast, Tom; Sara Pendergast, eds. (2000). International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Actors and Actresses. Vol. 3 (4th ed.). Farmington Hills, Mich: St. James Press. pp. 869–870. ISBN   978-1558624528.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Miller, Frank; Robert Osborne (2006). Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era. Chronicle Books. pp. 153–155. ISBN   978-0811854672.
  6. Strauss, Theodore (December 17, 1939). "Paul Muni, Less The 'Mr.,' Returns; Paul Muni, Less The 'Mr.,' Returns To Town" . The New York Times . Retrieved April 1, 2010.
  7. Tucker, Ken (2008). Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America. St. Martin's Press. ISBN   978-1429993296.
  8. See also Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (both 1931).
  9. 1 2 Corliss, Richard (1975). Talking Pictures: Screenwriters of Hollywood . David & Charles. p. 54. ISBN   978-0715368268.
  10. 1 2 Denby, David (September 9, 2013). "Hitler in Hollywood". The New Yorker . Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  11. A Flag Is Born Archived March 25, 2015, at the Wayback Machine , David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, April 2004
  12. "Paul Muni Quits Broadway Play; Has Eye Ailment". Toledo Blade . Associated Press. August 31, 1955.
  13. "Paul Muni Loses Left Eye to Tumor". Milwaukee Sentinel . Associated Press. September 7, 1955.
  14. "Ovation Greets Paul Muni On Return To Play". Toledo Blade. Associated Press. December 2, 1955.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 "Paul Muni, Actor, Dies on Coast; Won Fame in Biographical Roles; Portrayed Darrow, Pasteur, Zola, Juarez and Gangster in Stage and Film Career" . The New York Times. August 26, 1967.
  16. 1 2 Shipman, David (1970). The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Crown. pp. 434, 437. ISBN   978-0600338178.
  17. 1 2 Thomson, David (2014). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (6th ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 739. ISBN   978-0-375-71184-8.
  18. Gemünden, Gerd (2014). Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema, 1933–1951. McFarland. p. 60. ISBN   978-0231166799.
  19. "Editorial". The Napa Daily Register . November 2, 1932. p. 6.
  20. "1928/29 2nd Academy Awards". Academy Awards Database. September 24, 2014. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013.
  21. "Anecdotes of the Famous: Keeping Cool". The Milwaukee Journal. January 6, 1976. p. 40. Retrieved September 27, 2015 via Google News Archive.
  22. "M*A*S*H (MASH) s04e18 Episode Script". Springfield! Springfield!. Archived from the original on June 18, 2018. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  23. "Boardwalk Empire – Paul Muni and George Raft scene". YouTube. October 13, 2014. Archived from the original on May 18, 2015.
  24. Mooney, Paul (2009). Black is the New White. Simon Spotlight Entertainment. p. 47. ISBN   978-1-4165-8795-8.
  25. "Academy Awards statistics". Academy Awards Database. Archived from the original on July 1, 2016. Retrieved September 24, 2014.
  26. "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 43 (3): 33. Summer 2017.

Further reading